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Trending toward the unknown unknowns

Thornton May | April 1, 2016
Next-generation leaders will need to become masters at trend triage: figuring out how much time and resources to allocate to which trends

"Unknown unknowns" is a phrase made famous by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a news briefing on Feb. 12, 2002. Credit: U.S. Navy, public domain

The world is one big trend — actually a billion interdependent micro-trends. We are surrounded by them. Everything that has more than one data point has a corresponding trend. Unsurprisingly, the media is obsessed with trends. Quality journalism is being buried under an avalanche of listicles enumerating trends.

As an IT executive, it is critical that you stay on top of the trends that really matter. Unfortunately, there is a trend toward executives spending too much time on unimportant trends. Next-generation leaders will need to become masters at trend triage: figuring out how much time and resources to allocate to which trends. 

The anger trend

Marian Salzman, a fellow futurist and CEO of Havas PR North America, told The Economist in December 2010, “Anger is the color of the zeitgeist, and anyone who isn’t tapping it risks appearing out of touch.” Looking at the political discourse in this election year five years later, it would seem Salzman was on to something. But do IT executives have to tap into that anger? 

Truth be told, for seasoned CIOs, a useful skill is not so much managing their own anger as it is managing the aggregate anger and disappointment of those outside of IT. 

It has always been thus. Since the first mainframe was installed, non-IT professionals have been perturbed — bordering on angry — about how much computing costs, how long things take and the functionality that is ultimately delivered. IT professionals for the most part have become quite adept at dealing with the anger of relatively uninformed constituents. (Perhaps people who think a CEO would make a good president should turn to CIOs instead.) 

A big part of a CIO’s success comes down to the ability to talk angry users off the ledge. Great CIOs have groomed formerly angry users into aggressive “expecters” — people who try to do more with technology but understand that the path forward is a process. 

Technology as part of product/service design

Several years ago, the head of marketing at a top business school told me that cup holders were a key part of the automotive buying decision. Today, I imagine, the far more critical factor is technology integratability — the ability of a car to integrate seamlessly with the technology that consumers use in their daily lives such as cellphones, mobile apps, wearable devices, cloud services and data storage. This bespeaks a trend that extends far beyond the automotive industry; products and services today have to be designed with external technology in mind. I call this full range/free range technology. 


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